To honor SFR’s roundup of Santa Fe bars, I took in the famed tapas offerings at Santa Fe’s oldest extant bar, El Farol. The name translates to “the lantern,” a classic tavern signifier of warmth, respite and camaraderie—and El Farol does not disappoint in this regard.
Bartenders at El Farol, which was originally a stable, serve from a recessed trough in the floor that once was used for cleaning horses. Some toothless bastard used to stand down there, ankle-deep in horse shit, prettying up the ponies for people wealthy enough to own them. Now, dentally secure bartenders stand ankle-deep in bitters, tequilas and wayward limes as they scramble to keep the eclectic, energetic crowd lubricated with margaritas and mojitos.
El Farol has long been a fine-dining destination and one of the few places one can sit down and order up a classic paella, complete with saffron rice, scallops, shrimp, mussels, clams, chorizo and chicken. The restaurant became famous for tapas under the leadership of former head chef James Campbell Caruso, who now runs his own tapas joint, the much loved La Boca.
“Vevo” Rivera runs the show at El Farol these days, having gone from dishwasher in 1988 to his current kitchen dominion in 2006. It’s tough to track any big changes to the menu since Campbell Caruso’s days, but then El Farol still has a signature cookbook full of Campbell Caruso’s signature dishes. The result is that, as with La Boca, it can be difficult to balance the rich, sumptuous, heady tapas with lighter, zestier fare.
I still don’t understand how, in the US, tapas have transformed from small, cheap portions of bar food—almost inevitably eaten while standing—to the larger, more expensive platters of gourmand-y goulash that we expect today.
I think a niche waits to be filled by nimbler tapas fare but, in the meantime, there’s no point in complaining too loudly about what chefs like Rivera offer us—because it’s pretty damn good.
The standout plates during my most recent visit were the aguacate—a fried avocado with salsa cruda and lime crema—and the pato asado—slices of roasted duck gently bobbing in a thick Moroccan carrot sauce. The fried avocado offered a slightly sinful take on a fatty but healthy fruit and, despite the crema, managed an invigorating, refreshing challenge to some of the sauce-heavy dishes, and an intersection of penance and renewal for the mouth. I preserved the fried avocado as long as possible, keeping it by my side as a palette cleanser between dishes. The duck arrived perfectly cooked, which is to say striated with pale and deep reds, and took its sauce like a perfect flamenco partner: passionately and with equal amounts synchronous grace and heady challenge.
There was less grace in some of the dishes—a couple of the chorizos seemed too buried in sauce to allow their smoky, complex flavors to sing; the patatas bravas could have been less sweet and dry; and an escabeche was shy of the lasciviously delicious refreshment one might fantasize about—but it’s very difficult to leave a table at El Farol without a grin.
If you’re eating with at least one or two other people, you’ll want to get a platter of eight tapas of your choice for $53, a substantial savings over ordering independently. If you’re nice to the staff, you may not even have to choose all eight up front.
With Valentine’s Day approaching, El Farol is ready with beer-battered oysters and a margarita made with damiana, an herb that may have been an original margarita ingredient and is rumored, naturally, to act as a love potion. El Farol owner David Salazar is advising couples to make reservations early.
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